Did the Darkness at the Crucifixion Really Happen?

Some say that the darkness was an eclipse of the Sun, but there is one problem with this theory. The Jewish Passover always occurs with a full moon - so did the darkness really happen?
"Now from the sixth hour (12 pm) there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour (3 pm). And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent...
(Mt 27:45-54)

"And it was about the sixth hour (12 pm), and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour (3 pm). And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. "
(Luke 23:44-45).

"And when the sixth hour was come (12 pm), there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (3 pm) .
(Mark 15:33).

"During the time of Tiberius Caesar, an eclipse of the sun occurred during the full moon".
(Phlego - Greek Historian c129AD).

"Tertullian said later that he had found in the records of Rome a notion of worldwide darkness which the statesmen of the Empire could not explain".
(Tertullian - Roman Theologian).

During the last three hours preceding Jesus’ death on the cross, an eerie darkness struck the land. This darkness is documented by the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is also confirmed by three extra-biblical historians: Thallus, Phlegon, and Africanus. A closer look will reveal strong historical evidence for this unparalleled event.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke

Each of these authors briefly records the three-hour darkness during Christ’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45). Matthew was one of Jesus’ apostles and an eyewitness to the event. Mark was a close companion of Peter, one of Christ’s three innermost apostles. Mark also travelled with Paul, Luke, and many of the earliest Christians in the Book of Acts. Luke was a Greek physician and historian who carefully investigated the events of Christ’s life. His historical investigation was based on direct and indirect eyewitness accounts from Paul, Peter, James, Mark, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and many of Jesus’ first female followers.1 Luke is considered to be one of the most reliable historians of all time.1

J.A.T. Robinson, a liberal New Testament scholar, conducted an in-depth study in which he discovered strong historical, textual, and logical evidence for dating all of the gospels between AD 40-65.2 And Robinson was no friend of conservative biblical Christianity. Based on these dates, Matthew, Mark, and Luke would have written about the darkness a mere 7 to 32 years after the actual event.3 Compared to other ancient historical accounts, this is like a news flash. Suetonius, a Roman historian, wrote his account of Caesar crossing the Rubicon at least 110 years after the event, and it is considered to be generally reliable.4 The earliest biographies of Alexander the Great, by Arrian and Plutarch, were written over 400 years after his death, and they are considered trustworthy accounts.1 (Compare also Who was Luke and what did he write?)

Even more compelling is the fact that Rudolph Pesch, the German New Testament scholar, dates the source for Mark’s passion narrative no later than AD 37 based on language, style, grammar, and personal references.5 This is a maximum of four years after the actual event! It can be conclusively stated that the gospel accounts of the darkness at the crucifixion are extremely early, reliable, and based on eyewitnesses.

Thallus, Phlegon, and Africanus

Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War in about AD 52.6 Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century historian. Africanus states,

"Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun-unreasonably as it seems to me."

Apparently, Thallus attempted to ascribe a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion.

Phlegon was a Greek historian who wrote an extensive chronology around AD 137:

"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (i.e., AD 33) there was ‘the greatest eclipse of the sun’ and that ‘it became night in the sixth hour of the day [i.e., noon] so that stars even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia, and many things were overturned in Nicaea." 7

Phlegon provides powerful confirmation of the gospel accounts. He identifies the year and the exact time of day. In addition, he writes of an earthquake accompanying the darkness, which is specifically recorded in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 27:51). However, like Thallus, he fallaciously attempts to interpret the darkness as a direct effect of a solar eclipse.

Africanus composed a five volume History of the World around AD 221. He was also a pagan convert to Christianity. His historical scholarship so impressed Roman Emperor Alexander Severus that Africanus was entrusted with the official responsibility of building the Emperor’s library at the Pantheon in Rome. Africanus writes:

"On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Savior falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Caesar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth - manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period."8

Africanus rightly argues that a solar eclipse could not have occurred during the lunar cycle of the Passover, which was in the middle of the lunar month and the time of a full moon. Solar eclipses naturally take place only at the time of the new moon. Tertullian, in his Apologeticus, also makes note that the darkness could not have been an eclipse. He tells the story of the darkness that had commenced at noon during the crucifixion and says that those who were unaware of the prediction no doubt thought it an eclipse".[17] However, he points to the darkness as being something else and that it had been recorded in the state archives. In otherwords, in his day he suggests that the evidence is still available:

"You yourselves have the account of the world-portent still in your archives."[18]

It is evident that Tertullian was aware of what was in the State archives about the darkness and he may be referring a statement that later church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (264 - 340), in his Chronicle.

Why Are There Not More Sources?

Many skeptics ask why John’s Gospel does not mention the darkness at the crucifixion. Simon Greenleaf, of Harvard Law School, said it best about the gospels: There is enough of a discrepancy to show that there could have been no previous concert among them; and at the same time such substantial agreement as to show that they were all independent narrators of the same great transaction.11 In other words, independent narrators will sometimes record different secondary details about the same exact event. Many skeptics also ask why other early historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger fail to mention the darkness. But the skeptics are committing the fallacy of arguing from silence. It is unreasonable to expect every contemporary writer to include every event that happened—and there are good reasons not to expect these specific authors to mention the darkess (see Thallus: Darkness Rules). What we do have is a plethora of extremely early, historically reliable, and highly respected sources for the darkness during the crucifixion. The list of Matthew, Mark, Luke, Thallus, Phlegon, Africanus, and Tertullian is impressive indeed! Conclusion There is powerful evidence for the historicity of the darkness at Christ’s crucifixion. It was a real historical event, and its very existence was rooted in the real historical events in Genesis. As the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), Christ came to suffer the horrible and ignominious death of crucifixion in order to die for the sins of the world. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).’